The list of health benefits associated with a diet centered around plant-based foods goes on and on. If we could put all those together in one pill, we’d have a blockbuster drug. But it wouldn’t be as colorful or delicious as the prescription you can fill at a farmers’ market. So why do most Americans still fall woefully short on the optimal number of servings of fruits and vegetables—between 5 and 9 a day, depending on how many calories you consume?
There are many reasons, of course. But the leading one, I think, is that the choices closest at hand are those from fast-food outlets. And in some places, those are just about the only choices.
That’s why bringing the market to the medical center proved to be so powerful. If you make healthy food available and visible, people will try it. It’s a little like putting a bowl of fruit front and center in the kitchen so you or your children will grab an apple or a peach for a snack—except in this case we’ve put an entire farmers’ market on the street where people come and go. And we know at least some people are eating more healthy food as a result. In 2005 we conducted a survey and found that of our repeat market customers, 71 percent said they were eating more fruits and vegetables. Sixty-three percent were eating new and different fruits and vegetables.
Convenience is part of what our market offers. But I think people caught the spirit of it for another reason. It’s one thing for your primary-care doctor to say, “You know, you really should be eating a healthier diet.” But it’s a lot more convincing when your medical center hosts a farmers’ market where you can fill a bag with fresh, delicious produce. Our market proved that we, as doctors, not only talk the talk, we walk the walk. And that goes a long way toward convincing people—not just patients but everyone in our community—that we really believe in the importance of making healthy food choices.
Encouraging people to shop at farmers’ markets also encourages them to cook, and I firmly believe that’s another key to good health. When you prepare your own meals, it’s much easier to take charge of exactly what you eat. Take the example of salt. Too much of it can raise blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Where does most of the salt in the average diet come from? Processed foods. When people cook their own food (as opposed to relying on these processed foods), they typically consume less salt without even having to think about it.
Also, when you’re in charge of the menu, you can easily serve a more modest-sized portion of meat and add extra servings of fresh vegetables to a salad or a stir-fry, for example. You can also make smart choices, such as serving a whole grain like quinoa or brown rice instead of a refined grain like white rice. You can experiment, as my wife and I have, with fruits and vegetables you weren’t familiar with and might just learn to love.
I’ll admit, we’ve been lucky that our son, who trained as a professional chef before enrolling in medical school, taught us some tricks of his trade. When he was home for the summer, we cooked as a family nearly every night and had the tastiest meals I’ve ever enjoyed. My son showed us how to wield a chef’s knife correctly and how to slice and dice quickly. You don’t need to go to culinary school to cook at home, of course. And if you want to learn more, many larger farmers’ markets are sponsoring cooking classes. Even if yours doesn’t, it is a great place to meet other people who truly love good food—a place where you’re more likely to learn about how to choose, store and prepare produce than almost anywhere else.